Myth Busting Mezcal

Move Over Tequila: Time For Mezcal's Day in the Sun and in Our Glasses

bar full of mezcal bottles
••• Many small batch, sublime mezcal brands. Mezcalistas

Cinco de Mayo is the most misunderstood Mexican holiday here in the United States. So what better celebration than to dispel some myths about the hot new spirit crossing the border — mezcal.

Myth #1 - Where mezcal came from

An agave (or maguey, as they call it in most of the mezcal producing regions) based distilled alcohol, mezcal has been part of Mexican culture for at least the past 500 years. I say at least because there is some serious discussion happening these days as to whether the indigenous folks of Mexico were already distilling, or if that process was brought to Mexico by the Spanish.

What we know for sure is that Mezcal evolved from a fermented maguey beverage called pulque. Pulque is made from a specific type of maguey: Right as it is about to flower, you cut off the flower stalk leave a hole in the top of the maguey. Spa pools there, you collect and ferment that into a lightly alcoholic beverage.

Some people love it; for many, it’s an acquired taste and texture.

Folks played around with that method and instead harvest the hearts of maguey which are called piñas because they look like pineapples after their leaves have been shown. They started roasting maguey hearts underground, crushing, and fermenting them in open vats before finally distilling the entire mash either in copper stills (brought by the Spanish) or in clay pots (giving stronger argument to the distillation process already being in place.)

The resulting product is what we call mezcal, and was usually consumed pretty soon after it was made.

Mezcal was generally used in local celebrations like weddings.

Myth #2 - Mezcal always has a worm in it

Ah, the worm - or guano. The worm is a very important part of Mexican culture because it has been used for centuries as a source of protein and flavoring. The guano is a particular worm found in the roots of maguey plants.

It is dried, crushed, mixed in with salt and chili and used in many dishes, but also used as a condiment to dip a wedge of lime or orange into accompanying your mezcal.

The whole worm was sometimes put in bottles to add flavoring or to distinguish it from other distillates but was launched into the American consciousness as a tourist gimmick in the fifties.

Today you can also find mezcal bottles including scorpions which are yet another marketing gimmick. Once, I even saw a bottle that had a snake in it.

Myth #3 - Mezcal is tequila’s smoky cousin

The saying goes "all tequilas are mezcals but not all mezcals are tequilas." Mezcal means "anything distilled from agave," but over time, a variety of sub-types have emerged with their own distinctive names and flavors.

Tequila is the agave-derived spirit everyone knows the best because it’s been around the longest, since at least the late-19th Century, and because it had the best brand push in the 80’s and 90’s.

Others include stool, racially, and Baca Nora.

But the general category of mezcal is very expensive. Depending on who’s talking there are about 35 different kinds of magueys used in the making of mezcal.

Tequila has to be made with the blue agave, or tequila weber, and grown and produced in the Mexican state of Jalisco.

It is, without a doubt, the most popular spirit both in Mexico and the United States. The blue agave can be cultivated on a grand scale, and produced industrially.

Because the maguey hearts are generally steamed, rather than roasted, its flavor does not have that same roasted flavor as mezcal. Note I refrain from saying smoky, because if there is an overpowering flavor of smoke it means one of two things - smoke flavor has been added, or something went wrong in the production process.

The greatest number and variety of maguey comes from the southern state of Oaxaca, which produces about 85% of all labeled mezcals. A total of eight Mexican states has been granted denomination or use of the word mezcal. These include not only Oaxaca but also Durango, Guanajuato, San Luis Potosi, Michoacan, Tamaulipas, Guerrero, and Zacatecas.

Other states are looking to obtain denomination.

The majority of mezcal is made using the maguey variety called Espada in. This variety is easily cultivated and takes about 4-7 years to mature.

Growing in popularity are wild maguey mezcals and many projects are underway to see if they can ultimately be cultivated. These can take anywhere from 8-15 years to mature and several varieties are in grave danger of being overharvested and forever disappearing from the ecosystem.

Myth #4 - Shoot it

No, no no and no. First of all, mezcal is powerful stuff — usually 90 proof and above.

Second of all,  it is deliciously complex, with the first sip opening your taste buds and then every sip after that revealing a new flavor.

And third, would you shoot a fine scotch or whiskey? No, you want to savor it.

> bust 2 more burning mezcal myths

Myth #5 - Mezcal is cheap firewater

Much like the tradition of American whiskey and rye, mezcal is produced in the countryside at very rudimentary distilleries (palenques) that are open to the surrounding environment. For centuries, most mezcal remained in the villages where it was made.

Generations of palenqueros crafted their techniques and passed the tradition on to their heirs, while at the same time, globalization, increased trade and tourism brought mezcal out of its back-country existence.

The flavor of mezcal is incredibly complex. It’s the same package of influences that determine the flavors in wine - terroir, water, the type of maguey that goes into the mezcal and, of course, who the person is making the mezcal.

Add to that the amount of labor required to cut and haul maguey to the palenques, the skill to make it, and now the costs to certify, bottle and transport it. This product is anything but cheap.

And finally, Myth #6 - The cocktail conundrum

The resurgence of cocktails has breathed new life into the craft spirits world.

That very complex flavor that makes mezcal so lovely on its own is also the very thing that inspires bartenders to create cocktails based on mezcal. Mezcal makes for a great margarita, manhattan or negroni. It can go citrus or sweet, and even savory —  there are limitless combinations.

And much like with cooking where you never want to use a cheap wine, the same principle applies to mezcal.

Buy a nice, solid mezcal brand that doesn’t break the bank.

Preferably the mezcal you use for cocktails won’t be a rare, wild maguey mezcal. The only way those should be enjoyed are on their own. Otherwise all is fair in the world of mezcal cocktails.



Author Susan Coss of Mezcalistas is on a mezcal mission: "We like mezcal and think you should too. We are committed to telling the story of mezcal within the context of its history and cultural connection."